It may be easy for critics to alternately dismiss or applaud a film like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by describing it as a “dreamlike” collage of “weird” images or, better still, an “interesting” meditation on metempsychosic “themes.” But a film as potentially gush-overable-but-then-summarily-forgettable as the 2010 Palme d’Or winner might necessitate a slightly more considered (attempt at a) reading.
In September of 2006, the Royal Thai Army overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s provisional government in Thailand. The ensuing five years saw the implementation of extensive restrictions on broadcasting, the press, the internet, political parties, travel, and artistic expression, a trend that director Apichatpong Weerasethakul characterizes as a “confrontation of ideologies”: a disintegration of cultural values and, by extension, history.
Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a war veteran — having fought for his country during an insurgency of the Communist Party of Thailand in the 1960s — as well as a member of the Lao minority ethnic group, has reached the end of his (current) life: suffering from a rapid loss of kidney function, he has chosen to die in the countryside in the care of his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). But before this can happen, he will be visited by an apparition of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and a reincarnation of his son, Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), in the form of a giant monkey ghost, and will recall a number of formative experiences from his past lives, which include those of a buffalo and a catfish.
Boonmee embodies a fractured and failing Thai identity, representing both cultural victim and aggressor — the former, in the sense that he belongs to an ethnically and geographically distinct group that has or will one day fall victim to a streamlined Thai nationalism reinforced by the surmounting military fervor of the Thai state; the latter, for having once served that force as a fervid opponent of communism. The film’s vivid, chimeric “recollection” sequences, nearly all which have been shot during the “magic hour,” are probably best interpreted as… well, “nebulous, dreamlike” abstractions of that aforementioned clash of virtues, played out on that grandest of scales: eternity.
The film’s most memorable scene may be Boonmee’s recollection of lost love. As a talking catfish, he seduces a princess whom a curse has caused to lose her beauty. The film’s closing scene depicts Jen and her nephew, Thong, performing a kind of spiritual mitosis so they might stay behind and keep her daughter company, but they also step out to grab a bite to eat. It suggests a world in which the soul possesses an infinite capacity for transmigration, maybe personified in any or every organism, sentient or otherwise, sequentially or perhaps even concurrently. In one scene, Boonmee expresses equal regret for shooting “commies” in the military engagement of 1965 and accidentally crushing many insects in his life.
Uncle Boonmee boasts some of the most hauntingly beautiful cinematography in recent memory — a fact, I’m sure, unfairly bolstered by the hypnotic luxuriance of the northeastern Thai countryside — with many sequences strongly recalling the surrealistic, twilit “night scenes” of French post-impressionist Henri Rousseau. But directors of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Charin Pengpanich seem to also possess keen eyes for the transcendent beauty of unadulterated nature, depicting active spiritual consciousnesses with skyscapes, mountain ranges, and hazy verdures, keeping with the film’s transmigratory theme.
Only mildly diminishing the overall effect is Weerasethakul’s obsessive attention to the long, drawn-out, tactile experience of Boonmee’s decline and death, the environment in which that event is staged, its rites, etc. Ironically enough, attempting such a complete immersion can often produce an alienating effect. His interest in non-professional actors is also something of a double-edged sword: their performances are affectless, which was undoubtedly the point of their being cast, but there are moments where affect may have been necessary.